Bob Dylan was quoted as saying that “one is either busy being born or busy dying.” In my view, that is as true for societies as it is for individual people. So are we as a country still willing to improve ourselves and accept challenges for change? Are we still busy being born? If we are, we should join the rest of the world and convert to the Metric System of measurement.

  There probably is no need to discuss the irrationality of our present Imperial System of weights, measures, distances and temperatures. No one can argue that there is any logic in having twelve inches in a foot, but three feet in a yard or 5,280 feet in a mile. The same is true with regard to the lack of a logical relationship among ounces, pounds and tons. Furthermore, what is the logic in the Fahrenheit system in defining water as freezing at 32 degrees and boiling at 212 degrees? And how in today’s world can we continue to use a system that awkwardly measures volumes in fluid ounces, cups, pints, quarts, gallons and barrels? (By the way, exactly how large is a hectare or even an acre of land, or a peck or a bushel of grain?)  

  On the other hand, there is a natural beauty and logic to the Metric system. Does not the metric system in which water freezes at zero degrees Celsius and boils at 100 make much more sense? As a result of this sensibility, the sciences of chemistry, physics and medicine in our country long ago shifted to the metric system. And we have already joined the rest of the world’s athletic communities by using the metric system in our track and field events.  

When countries like Canada converted to the metric system in the 1970s, they used slogans like “Metric: 10 times better.” They were right. As a result, the phrase “Speak in English, Measure in Metric” controls the business and scientific life in most of the rest of the world. Conversely, the only countries in the world in addition to us that are holding on to the Imperial System are Liberia in West Africa, and Myanmar Republic, formerly known as Burma. So we are not exactly in vibrant company.  

The Metric System was designed during the French Revolution of the 1790s to bring order out of the numbers of conflicting and confusing systems of weights and measures that were then being used in different regions within their country. Soon this system spread to other countries of Europe because merchants, scientists and other educated people realized the need for a uniform system among all of the nations.  

The basis of this new system came from the Earth itself. The meter was established as one ten-millionth of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole. Then the other units of measurement were integrated with the meter. For example, the liter was measured as the volume of one cubic decimeter, the kilogram was measured as the weight of one liter of pure water, and one calorie was defined as the amount of energy needed to heat one cubic centimeter of water one degree Celsius. Pretty neat.

Of course, like in virtually all circumstances in which people are requested to change away from what they have grown up with, there was an initial resistance by the general population to this change, especially among the elderly. As a result the metric system was not made compulsory in France until 1837. In fact, the first countries formally to adopt the system were Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg, and that was in 1820.

But due to the expansion of the global economy and the increasingly important study of sciences, most of continental Europe, Latin America and many other countries around the world adopted the metric system by the year 1900. Most of the last countries to adapt to the change were in the British Commonwealth, where the Imperial System originated. But by the 1970s they began to make the change as well. Now even Great Britain itself has abandoned the metric system, with the one exception of still using yards and miles for road traffic purposes.

All of the countries that converted to this more rational system did so by phasing it in over a few years. We should do so as well. My wife lived in Canada during that country’s change and she tells me that within two years most people were comfortable with the new system, even including her parents.  

I recommend that we begin the transition by teaching the metric system in all of our K through 12 schools right away. Then we can adopt some dates by which all government measurements will be issued in the metric system, including traffic signs and packaged foods and liquids. The phasing in process should begin by changing from “soft metric” to “hard metric,” so that “1 pint (473 ml)” will soon become “500 ml (1.057 pint),” with the latter slowly being reduced to smaller type size and eventually disappearing all together.  

Maintaining our cumbersome Imperial System of measurements has numbers of costs in addition to our being out of step with most of the rest of the world. One of the most specific instances of those costs occurred about 15 years ago when one of our space probes malfunctioned and was lost because, as was later determined, one of the engineers on the project failed to change a calculation from inches into centimeters. But in general, since all of our trading partners use the metric system, making this change cannot fail to increase our success in world trade, and economic strength and political strength go hand in hand.

So as we have seen, from virtually every aspect the metric system makes sense, and we should embrace the challenge and begin to phase it into our daily lives, and thereby allow us to join the other countries in the world in this important area. And besides, when it comes down to it, gas will seem cheaper at 75 cents per liter, and in addition, since half a liter is more than a pint, everybody will get more beer!

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)